The Murder of Theora Hix

Columbus Ohio, 1929

In some ways, 1929 was a very strange year. It marked the end of the “Roaring Twenties”, a period of economic prosperity that touched nearly every aspect of modern life. It was truly a time of change. New technologies, from radios to automobiles, would revolutionize the world in new and interesting ways. New views and philosophies saw the birth of everything from modern Jazz (at least it was modern at the time) which greatly influenced a paradigm shift in art, music, and fashion. The Great War (which was later renamed World War I by the people who named the next great war World War II) was over, and while the stock market hadn’t quite crashed yet, the economic instability would ultimately lead to The Great Depression was well underway. Things were becoming such a mess that the French just gave up, referring to the decade as the “années folles” or “The Crazy Years … and US President Warren G. Harding became known for trying to create a path for a “return to normalcy”.

It is also important to this story to note things like Prohibition. While the general public was mostly split between those who believed alcohol was some sort of “devil’s drink” that would be the downfall of decent humanity and those who believed it was no big deal to enjoy a nice cold alcoholic drink or ten after a hard day’s work. Prohibition was also responsible for a massive rise (and slight redefinition of) organized crimes and gangs, especially in regards to New York’s “Joe the Boss” Masseria and Chicago’s Al “Scarface” Capone.

The 1920s also marked a bit of a paradigm shift between more “traditional” morals and ethics (and family structures) and new sets of philosophical systems that challenged outdated beliefs. For example, this decade marked the beginning of the Women’s Liberation Movement, which dared to suggest that Women were just as capable as men as doing everything, except maybe urinating while standing up. Ok, I’ve just been made aware of a 1922 patent granted for a product called a “Sanitary Protector” which was a single-use object designed to allow women to pee standing up. So, I stand corrected.

By 1929, the world of cinema was starting to look more like an artform and less like a novelty. In fact, it was the year of the First Academy Awards in California, where Janet Gaynor won the award for best actress for appearing in three films, beating out Gloria Swanson and Louise Dresser. The entire ceremony lasted all of fifteen minutes … so, yeah, uh, that really was a quite different time.

And it was in 1929 that Virginia Wolfe published her massive essay, A Room of One’s Own that attempted to shine a light on many of the injustices women were facing at that time. She was not the first feminist author to manage to get her words published, nor would she be the last. But, it does give you a fairly good idea about what the time was like.

Perhaps a better author to mention here would be D. H. Lawrence because it was in 1928 and 1929 that what may be his most controversial work, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was first published (and banned and published and banned). At the forefront of the censorship debate (in regards to this book) was its graphic sexuality and depictions of the human body, which this book contained countless examples. However, it also displayed (and may have even celebrated) a new view of femininity and womanhood, in which Lady Chatterley was not the possession of her father or husband, but an active woman with thoughts and feelings of her own, even regarding sex.

Even though the general public seemed to display this almost puritanical view of sex and relationships, contrary views were just as common, even if relegated to the shadows of history. While these new views were not exactly uncommon, they were in many cases considered a mental illness. 

Yet, during the 1920s, one of the “cures” for female hysteria was still, essentially, a vibrating dildo. Meanwhile, the Sears Catalog could sell one that they said was “a delightful companion – all the pleasures of youth – will throb within you” that you could buy, you know, as long as your husband allowed you to have your own bank account and all that.

Honestly, it would be impossible to describe the whole of human experience in the 1920s, but hopefully I was able to give you some food for thought. 

A Gruesome Crime Scene

Most stories about the murder of Theora Hix begin with a bet between two Columbus, Ohio teenagers: Paul Krumlauf and Milton Miller. The two boys had made a friendly wager, each one boasting they were the better shot. On the morning of Friday, June 14, 1929, the two boys set out on foot to visit the New York Central Pistol Range to see which one was the better shot. Unfortunately, fate had other ideas.

The boys’ walking path took them through an area that was a sort of Lover’s Lane, a place nicknamed “Shirttail Alley” on account of the young adults who would go there to Park and Neck. The area between the road and the pistol range was an open field of tall grass, and it was here that they made a rather gruesome discovery. What they had initially believed to have been a pile of discarded clothing turned out to be the body of a young female, laying face down on the ground. Rather than investigate themselves, they summoned the police, sparing them the worst part of the scene.

It does not take long for the police to arrive at the scene and moments later the body is removed to the Coroner’s Office in hopes they could identify the victim and begin the autopsy. Collecting evidence from the crime scene was going to prove to be a bit difficult as the tall grass made searching difficult. Before they could begin, local inmates from a nearby asylum were called in to start cutting back the grass.

Before beginning the autopsy, the coroner searched through missing person reports and did find one possibility. He contacted the missing girl’s parents, who came to view the body. However, the face was so mutilated, neither were able to say for certain if that was, or was not their daughter. Before the couple left, a friend of the missing girl arrived and was allowed to see the body, too. She, however, was confident that the body did not belong to her friend. 

Later that evening, two students at Ohio State University called the police to report their roommate, Theora Hix, was missing. They explained that Theora had not come home the previous evening, but they were not concerned as Theora liked to take long walks at night and believed she may have stayed with a friend. They did not become worried until she did not come back the following morning, which was unlike her. At nearly the same time, an employee of the phone company also called to report Theora Hix missing. She described Theora as a reliable coworker, so when she didn’t show up for work that Friday, she got worried.

It didn’t take long for a positive identification to be made. 

The Victim: Theora “Teddy” Hix

Theora Hix was described in several different ways, all depending on who was talking. To her parents, she was a serious student who was serious about becoming a medical doctor, just like her father. They said Theora did not have much of a social life because she was that dedicated to her studies. 

According to her roommates and a number of other students at Ohio State, Theora was a shy, athletic girl. She was known for going to various extracurricular activities at the university, but mostly kept to herself. While they said she was friendly with most people, she didn’t seem to be friends with any of them.

Later on, she would be described in some massively different ways.

A Circus of Clues

Once the victim was identified, the police began looking at clues.

According to several witnesses who had seen Theora earlier in the day she was killed, she had been carrying her purse. Theora had also carried with her a key ring that held a number of keys. (Ultimately, the key to solving this crime was, in fact, those keys.)

The police believed the murder weapon to be a ball peen hammer, based on most of the injuries and wounds to Theora’s body. There was, also, a knife used to slit her throat, and possibly stab her in her ear. Neither of these objects were located at the crime scene. The police did hope to find them at some point, believing that might help point to the killer, or maybe a motive.

While the trauma to the victim’s face and body suggested a crime of passion, the missing purse also suggested robbery as a possible motive. The area where Theora was discovered was, after all, right next to Shirttail Alley, so while the police thought it was unlikely, it was still possible she had gone there with a boy to neck, only to be robbed and beaten with the hammer.

It did take police a little extra time to search the crime scene, on account of the tall grass. A small group of “inmates” from the nearby asylum were hired to tame the grass so a proper inspection could be made. It was after this that they discovered a small key ring with three keys attached, and a number of other keys laying on the ground in a circular pattern. To the detectives, it suggested that someone had yanked the key ring, causing it to open and most of its contents to fly out a short distance. A total of twelve keys were discovered at the scene.

Journalists and police detectives (usually working together) began interviewing everyone Theora knew. According to her family, as well as her roommates and what few people she was social with at school, Theora wasn’t dating anyone and didn’t seem all that interested in men, at all. They say she was devoted to her studies and her job as a telephone operator, and other than taking long walks in the evening, didn’t know all that much about her.

But that might not have been completely accurate.

A few hours after the body had been positively identified, the police received a call from a man named Marion T. Meyers who wanted to know if it was true that Theora Hix had been murdered. He explained that he was “just a friend” of Theora’s, but when pressed for additional information on why he was asking that question, he hung up, ending the conversation. A few hours later, the man appeared in person at the Columbus Police Station and started asking questions about the body found at the shooting range. He was promptly arrested on a suspicion charge.

When he was questioned by the police, he said that he (an agricultural expert) had been out in a field near Toledo working on a Corn Borer infestation when a fraternity brother informed him of Theora’s murder. Meyers was also able to come up with an alibi for most of the evening Theora was killed, except for a roughly thirty minute period of time when he claimed to be out mailing some letters. 

According to Meyers, he and Theora had dated for a brief period. Their relationship ended, however, nearly a year before when Meyers proposed marriage to Hix. Even though she laughed at the proposal upon turning him down, the two remained on friendly terms.

Police detectives felt like Meyers was trying to hide certain details while being questioned, often giving weak or vague answers and being asked to elaborate. Several witnesses had already admitted to having seen Theora earlier in the day in the company of an older, balding man they didn’t recognize. Meyers was ten years older than Hix, and his friends called him “Baldy” for a reason. All this evidence against him was circumstantial, and because others were able to verify most of Meyer’s alibi, they would need a lot more if they were going to arrest him for murder.

Another older, balding gentleman also came to police attention, so on Saturday morning, the police detective and a reporter from one of the local newspapers knocked on the door of Dr. James Howard Snook, who was soon escorted to the nearest police station for questioning.

Unlike Meyers who displayed a nervous energy, Dr. Snook was cool, calm, and collected. Like Meyers, both the detective and the reporter had to dance around the questions to get any valuable information out of him. And, within time, a few interesting tidbits became known.

After a bit of questioning, Snook admitted to having a sexual relationship with Hix. He admitted to helping her out financially, telling of a series of loans totalling a thousand dollars, which she paid back before asking for seven hundred and fifty more. Snook admitted to giving her a gun after she expressed concern for her safety during her evening walks. 

While he was being interviewed, other detectives began an examination of Snook’s car, a blue coupe. They discovered a peculiar stain inside the passenger’s side door that looked a lot like blood. Behind the seat was a woman’s umbrella, a blood stained glove, and a hairpin.

When the police searched Dr. Snook’s house, they failed to find the murder weapon or Theora’s purse, but in the fireplace they did find several items of “a feminine nature” as well as some burnt remains of what appeared to be men’s pajamas and a men’s bloodstained shirt. Dr. Snook’s wife, Helen, tried to explain the items away saying she had burnt the weekly trash and that the stains on the shirts were some sort of animal blood. She was unable to come up with an explanation for the “feminine items”.

Shortly after Dr. Snook’s mugshot was published in the papers, the police received a call from a lady who ran a boarding house named Margaret Smalley who had a quite interesting tale to tell. The man the paper called Dr. Snook from Columbus was, to her, Mr. Snook from Newark, Ohio. (Newark is about 30 miles east of Columbus.) She had rented a room to Dr. Snook and his (much younger) wife who she only knew as Mrs. Snook. (And, it seems this Mrs. Snook fits the description of Theora Hix very well, and not very well Mrs. Helen Snook.) She had rented a room to Mr. Snook, a salt salesman, and his wife to use while he was doing business in town. 

On the day of Theora’s murder, Smalley explained, Mr. Snook had come to see her saying that he and his wife no longer needed to rent the room as he was moving to Washington Court House. Mrs. Snook would be keeping the room until Sunday, after which time she would be joining him at his new home. He explained that Mrs. Snook would leave both keys in the room when she left Sunday afternoon. In the room, the police discovered both keys as well as a man’s brown felt hat.

The Circus Gets More Bizarre

What started as a local interest story, quickly began to be covered by papers all across the state before quickly gathering the attention of the nation, if not the world. 

Academically speaking, Theora Hix had been talked about as a promising young woman from an affluent family – a woman with the world at her fingertips.

The first suspect, Marion T. Meyers was nervous around the police. He admitted to having a relationship with Theroa, but initially said they had broken things off after she rejected his marriage proposal, only to later admit to continuing a sexual relationship. In his initial statement, he was able to provide an alibi for the entire day, except for a short time when he first claimed to have gone to a theater. However, this was later amended to a walk to the post office when police discovered the theater in question had been dark for months.

The second suspect, Dr. Snook was calm during nearly all his interrogations, but refused to give certain details until presented with evidence about them. He owned a car upon which bloodstains and items that had belonged to a woman, several of which pointed back to Theora. Dr. Snook and Theora had also rented a room, which the papers began to call their “love nest” and led the landlady to believe they were man and wife. 

Both men had thus far been considered upstanding members of the community. Meyers was known as being an expert in matters of agriculture. Dr. Snook, however, his influence extended a bit farther. He was the inventor of what became known as Snook’s Hook, a surgical device used in the spaying of animals. He was also a member of the United States Rifle Team that won the Gold Medal in the 1920 Olympics.

For a brief moment, Helen Snook (Dr. Snook’s actual wife) was considered as a suspect. She admitted to burning items in the house incinerator, including a few items that had once belonged to Theora. She also was believed to be around the same size as her husband, meaning it was possible she was wearing his shirt when it became bloodstained. She claimed to have spent the entire evening Theora was murdered at home, and thus alone. It was unclear at what point she learned about her husband’s affair, thus providing a potential motive.

Several solutions were being provided by newspapers throughout the nation. One theory had Theora being killed by a person during an epileptic fit, which the paper reported as being promoted by “Washington D.C. Scientists”. Other theories included an escaped convict from one of the local jails or asylums, an unknown homicidal madman, or a stalker that may or may not have been peeking through bedroom windows in a nearby part of town.

What the police didn’t have was a smoking gun, or a smoking ball peen hammer in this case. Nor was Theora Hix’s purse ever found. 

At the time, police actually believed that a suspect would be compelled to confess when presented by the weight of the evidence against him. This theory was first tested when the police took Marion Meyers to the coroner’s office and tried to force him to look at Theora’s remains. He did not. After he was returned to the police station, he was further questioned. All of the evidence and theories against him were weak, and without anything to tie him directly to the crime, the police felt they could no longer confine him and he was let go.

It was Dr. Snook’s turn next. And by now, thanks to the wide variety of stories appearing in the papers, many people felt the situation was giving Columbus a bad name. The police wanted a confession, which they felt was the only way to get past this whole ordeal. Therefore, they began to go after Dr. Snook … and they went after him hard. It had been a week and a day since the discovery of Theora’s body.

Several detectives questioned Dr. Snook and confronted him with everything they had, every theory they could come up with. At one point, the detective had gotten so enraged at Snook’s evasions, he struck the Doctor with his open palm five times. Shortly after this, Dr. James Howard Snook confessed to the murder of Theora Hix.

And things were about to get even crazier.

The Trial of Dr. Snook

If the police had hoped that media coverage of the Snook-Hix affair would start to die down after they published Snook’s confession, they were badly mistaken. In fact, the media coverage seemed to get even worse and in some cases, even more bizarre. Nearly every aspect of the case continued to be commented on, witnesses who had almost no firsthand knowledge of the case were interviewed at length, but at least most people thought the police had caught the right man.

Finding a potential jury proved to be an interesting experience, as it was a bit difficult to find someone who had not heard of either Theora Hix or Dr. Snook, and therefore had no pre-existing opinions on the case. But, eventually the jury was set and the trial was set to begin.

On what was supposed to be the first day of trial, things were forced to proceed slowly. For the past several days, as the jury selection process was underway, crowds (journalists and curious citizens alike) crowded the courtrooms hoping to hear the latest gossip. But, once word had gotten out the jury had nearly been selected, the crowds became even bigger. After several members of the public audibly gasped at something heard in the courtroom or started to offer what could only be considered their own, uninformed, commentary, the judge began issuing stern warnings about silence in the courtroom. 

It didn’t really help matters that Dr. Snook and his legal team had told newspaper reporters that once court began, he would reveal a bit of new information that would, effectively, knock away the prosecution’s entire case. So, as the last of the jury was finally seated and the trial portion could begin, things got delayed. By now, not only the courtroom was crowded, but so was the hallway leading to it, as well as the lobby on the far end. Further spectators lined the streets outside. Inside the courtroom, without proper ventilation, it became so hot that several members of the public fainted and all but one had to be removed from the room. 

As promised, Snook’s team did, eventually, drop the bombshell. Yes, he is still admitting to having killed Theora Hix. But, it was something between self-defense and temporary insanity. Theora was being unreasonable, making wild demands and when she didn’t get her way, she threatened to kill Snook’s wife and daughter. He beat her with a ball peen hammer he had in the back of his coupe, fearful that the woman would harm his kin.

Toward the end of the trial, Dr. Snook would take the stand to testify. He admitted to having had an affair with Theora Hix and renting the room under false pretexts for their lovemaking. Theora knew Dr. Snook was married, and Snook was likewise aware that Theora was seeing other men. There was no plans on the two ever getting married, or entering into some sort of mutually agreeable circumstance. 

The longer they were together, however, the more possessive and controlling Theora got, at least, according to Snook. She tried getting him to read various feminist books that sought to change the traditional family structure, empower feminine sexuality, and while Dr. Snook was agreeable to some things, there was a limit to what he could, or would tolerate. One day, in particular, there were gasps and comments from the spectators when Dr. Snook detailed some of the lovemaking positions Theora had convinced him to engage in. The judge threatened to essentially clear the courtroom, which would have been an undertaking in and of itself. Many spectators were found to be in possession of fake or less-than-legitimate press passes, and there were so many people wanting to see or hear everything being said, that task would likely have proven to be impossible. Yet, the worst was yet to come. When Dr. Snook spoke about how he and Theora had engaged in fellatio, the court went wild, yet again.

It is slightly interesting to look back at the old newspaper reports and see the shock and dismay over topics like this which is not such a big deal today, but in 1929 were so scandalous and inappropriate to discuss in police society the newspapers couldn’t even print any of it. There were a few that tried, but most papers ignored that aspect of Snook’s testimony. At the time, it was too scandalous.

Finally, Dr. Snook got to the evening in question. According to his testimony, the day before Theora’s untimely death, he informed her that he was needing a break from his busy work and social schedule and had planned on taking a few days vacation with his wife and daughter. The following day, Theora had tried several times to reach him at the country club, but he refused to take her calls. She ultimately tracked him down at the pistol range and demanded his attention. Dr. Snook tried to reason with her, suggesting that they get together after he spent some time shooting his pistols, but she wanted him to go off with her right then. She didn’t want to wait. 

Snook and Hix finally headed off into the grassy area just off the range where they continued their fight. Theora wanted him to cancel his vacation plans with his family, but Snook refused. Theora tried to suggest that she wanted his company right then and there and she deserved to have it. Theora demanded that if he didn’t cancel his plans, she was going to kill his wife and daughter, and that was when, in a temporary fit of rage, Dr. Snook grabbed the hammer from his coupe and struck her several times in the face and shoulders. Theora, weak, fell to the ground but did not die instantly. Not wanting the girl to be in prolonged pain, he went back to his car, grabbed a knife, and slit her throat. He knew (he was a doctor and they know these types of things) that she was unlikely to survive her injuries, so he believed at that moment that killing her would be the humane thing to do. After that was all said and done, Dr. Snook began to panic. He grabbed the knife, the hammer, as well as Theroa’s purse and drove to a bridge over the Scioto River and threw them in. 

But, there was one slight problem with his story. The detectives saw it … and perhaps the jury did as well. The key to solving this case was, in fact, a key. As in Theora’s key to their “Love Nest”. When Dr. Snook saw the landlady earlier that day and said they would no longer be needing the room, he gave her his key, and left Theora’s key in the room, saying that Theora would be using the room through for another two days and would leave the key in the room. The next day, the key would be found exactly where Dr. Snook said it would be. So, how did the key get there … and if Snook wasn’t planning on killing Theora, then why would he tell the landlady they wouldn’t be needing the room any more. The only logical explanation was that Dr. Snook wrestled the key off Theora when he killed her, then drove to the love nest and left the key in the room. There could be no other explanation on why Dr. Snook new they wouldn’t need the room, unless he had planned on doing … something.

After both sides rested their cases, the jury was set off to deliberate. It was less than a half hour later that they returned with their verdict. Dr. Snook was guilty of the murder of Theora Hix.

On February 28, 1930, Dr. Snook died by “Legal Electrocution” and became the only Gold Medal Olympian executed for murder.

Some Thoughts On History

One of the most interesting aspects of this story is how much times have changed since these events occurred. Nearly every aspect of the story points to at least one of those changes. For example – having a police detective and a journalist investigating the murder together, interviewing witnesses at the same time … it almost seems ridiculous. Today, for quite a few obvious reasons, that would never occur. But, in the 1920s, it was more commonplace than you’d imagine.

In the 1920s, the mere mention of fellatio was so obscene, so scandalous, it was the only aspect of this case that could not, under any circumstances, be reported in the papers, or even referred to in police society. Dr. Snook having an affair, or a mistress, was in and of itself a scandal, and for a time it was the talk of the town. That they could talk about – but the activities they admitted to were too much for the world to handle at the time.

The opposite can also be true. For example, in everything I read dated from around 1929, the ten year age difference between Hix and Meyers, as well as the twenty year difference between Hix and Snook was barely mentioned, and when it was it was only in passing. Yet, several of the more modern blogs and podcasts that mention this case, that aspect seems to be front and center. To be fair, there may be a little psychological information here, if only to point out Theora’s mentality. She seemed to relate with people who were older than her, and not so much with people around her own age. This suggests a mature mentality, without the experience that comes with age, which could certainly explain a few things.

When we study history, sometimes it’s hard for us to get an accurate picture of what things were like at whatever period in time, perhaps because our natural instinct is to compare things with the way they are now. This case illustrates this to no uncertain degree.

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